In the summer of 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake rattled China’s cage and left a death toll of nearly seventy thousand people. Within this massive scope of destruction, the city of Beichan, once home to twenty thousand, was obliterated in a fleeting moment. The earthquake wiped Beichan off the map in a matter of hours, while survivors spent the following days piecing together what was left of their families. In Fallen City, director Qi Zhao documents the course three fractured families take in the wake of this disaster. His film toys with dynamite, piecing together threads of family life with little in common but grief, and the raw emotion proves at times too much for the director to harness effectively. Nevertheless, Fallen City stumbles onto a quiet rhythm that carries the film. At its best, Zhao’s first feature uses tragedy to study the role of family in China, a bond that struggles to thrive amidst death and the cold motives of a government desperate to rebuild and save face.
Fallen City follows each family in a sporadic order, pointedly informing the audience of loved ones lost through the use of title cards. One family is comprised of a wife and husband who lost their daughter and now struggle with whether or not they will try for another child. Meanwhile, they find they cannot afford the new homes built in the shadow of their ruined city, but are unwilling to move and leave their daughter’s grave. Another family consists of a daughter who must care for her quadriplegic mother whose mind slowly slips into dementia. This daughter acts as a community organizer and speaks soberly to the camera of her lack of a will to live outside of the need to help others. She insists that money means nothing to her anymore and says if her mother had died in the quake she might as well have followed her after. Finally, a teenage boy copes with the loss of his father as his mother remarries a man who similarly lost his wife. The boy begins to drift in school, ignores his studies for videogames and isolation, and pines for a father who would understand his plight.
Qi Zhao follows these stories diligently, mostly adhering to the “fly on the wall” philosophy of filmmaking. However, his intrusion on their lives remains deeply felt throughout, and his responsibility as a filmmaker must be called into question in some way. To begin with, Zhao chooses a stylistic device that smacks of exploitation, as he sits families down beside empty chairs, seeking to give visual aid to how many were lost in the disaster. While the framing remains crudely effective, it ends up feeling cruel as he proceeds to question the families, forcing them to relive their grief as if the ghosts of their loved ones were beside them. These moments do not last long, and so they can be somewhat forgiven as the mistake of a young filmmaker. More troubling though, is the path of the third family’s struggles. With desultory young boy, the camera soaks in his misery and gives affirmation to the grief he refuses to let go of. In this case, the presence of the film may actually hinder his convalescence by its need to constantly aggravate the wounds of the past.
These are the drawbacks of making a documentary outside the moment of impact, because the presence of the filmmaker threatens to alter the path of the story. Still, while Fallen City occasionally falters it also offers a quiet grace and acuity as well. There are brilliant sequences involving the ruins of what is now known as Old Beichan. A series of dissolves show the forest overtaking the city. Meanwhile, the occasional still shot shows a bridge buried beneath the river, or fish swimming in a dirty pond above a bed of concrete debris. Slowly, nature stalks back into the abandoned town, and the strange juxtaposition between strewn rubble and lush vegetation, the two polar opposites of life and death, give the film an arresting quality. In another sequence, the young boy mentioned earlier plods through the wreckage, his body held out of focus as interview dialog carries over from another scene. Through this device, we see that the boy has lost his sense of who he is with his father’s passing. His body, shown formless and wandering amidst the broken shambles of past buildings, allows the viewer to feel his disconnect far more effectively than just hearing him speak it.
Beyond these subtle reflections though, the film’s greatest intrigue lies in the story’s tortuous end. In an ironic twist, the Chinese government turns Old Beichan into an attraction. This act falls on the heels of military officials keeping grieving parents from burning paper money at their child’s grave, a well-established ancient tradition, because of an apparent fear of their littering ashes. The government has also been represented in stilted television interviews concerning the downfall of Old Beichan, mentioning the new city being built and how much happier their citizens will be there, apparently convinced that materialistic comfort outstrips the loss of a child or sibling or parent. And so, the perversion of a fallen city into a bizarre sideshow, all fenced off and filled speaker boxes uttering nationalistic platitudes on repeat, feels like a natural extension of a government out of touch with its citizen’s despair.
Even more bizarre though, is the community director’s imprisonment after facing charges on fraud. The woman’s ailing mother dies while she languishes in jail, after having tried to secure more homes in the new city than she was allocated. While the imprisonment tarnishes the woman’s character, who up until this point had seemed a near saint, it drives home the importance of family by capturing her profound sense of guilt. More importantly, the woman rails against her “puny position,” saying that if she was not community director she would have received a slap on the wrist instead of three and a half years in jail. Ultimately, Zhao uses this twist, along with the rest of the film, to illustrate the growing disconnect between the Chinese government and its people. He focuses on how families struggle to remain connected together, giving stark contrast to a government that refuses to accept the weakness of their bereavement. Even though Fallen City is occasionally too aware of needing to make use of its hardship, by its end the film still succeeds in honoring those lost. I can only hope that now the film has been made, the ghosts of Old Beichan can be left alone. That is, at least during non-business hours.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.